Challenging the doctrine of co-located teams in new product development

There is an abundance of academic research to support the performance advantages of co-located teams in new product development. Marina Mendonça Natalino Zenun, Geilson Loureiro and Claudiano Sales Araujo in “The Effects of Teams’ Co-location on Project Performance” suggest the following definitions:

Team: a small number of people with complementary skills who are equally committed to a common purpose, goals, and working approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

Co-located Team: a team that has a common physical area specifically allocated to the execution of the tasks related to the project. The team members shall seat close together. By close, it is defined as close enough that they can overhear each other’s telephone conversations. 

In “Design Teams: Co-location Trumps Remote” Jared Spool observed that co-location of a team facilitates the development of a common vocabulary for an emerging vision. He wrote “A co-located design team will have an easier time of producing great designs than a remote team.”

Challenging the Implications

The performance comparison of a co-located team and a remote team may have an implication that the two ‘teams’ are composed of the same number of individuals with the same set of unique skills and experiences and training.

The two groups of individuals do not have to be ‘the same’ in every aspect expect where they sit. Consider the following potential differences in the remote network

Challenge 1: The remote network can include individual contributors with superior skills in the designated domains. Several individuals can have enhanced capabilities in appropriate domains.

Challenge 2: The product champion (product manager, product owner, development lead,..) for the remote group can be ten times more capable of leading a remote network of individuals that have a more diverse skill set than the person in the equivalent role for the co-located team. The person recruiting the talent for the remote network can have a better vision of what will be required at various times during the project than their counterpart for the co-located team.

Challenge 3: The remote network can have supporting tools for cooperation and collaboration that are five times better than the generic tools of the co-located team.

Challenge 4: The project may benefit by having individuals that have been immersed in a particular culture or a variety of cultures. The geographically dispersed team may be equipped to understand the regional/global aspects of the project more quickly that the co-located team.

Challenge 5: The nature of the project may benefit from testing the product in multiple geographic locations. The geographically dispersed network may be equipped to make more direct observations of potential customers using the product. They may have better skills to interpret the results.

Challenge 6: There may not be sufficient supporting resources for a co-located team at a central facility. There may be shortages of physical space or IT support. A distributed network may be able to adapt to an evolving need for specified head-counts and expertise better than a co-located team. The remote network may be able to mobilize ‘available resources’ (those that do not have obligations to other concurrent projects) better than a co-located team.

Challenge 7: The remote team may be available to take advantage of an emerging opportunity when a co-located team’s involvement may be delayed. The ability to begin learning soon may provide a unique competitive advantage.

Challenge 8: If the business case is compelling enough to justify starting the project immediately, it may be easier to raise additional funds to expand the portfolio using a remote network than it would be to re-arrange the assignments of individuals that are part of co-located teams with responsibilities to other projects.

Enhancing the Capabilities of Individuals in Development Networks

I have never completed a project where every individual on the team was co-located. Some contributors were located more than 10 meters from the core group. Some contributors were located in other buildings or in other timezones. Some contributors were not employees of the company funding the project. Some contributors may have been described as part-timers, vendors, partners, contractors, or temporary workers. It is unlikely that any of my future projects will be done with a co-located team.

Since more development work will be done with individuals in remote networks, what approach is more likely to produce better outcomes for customers, the business, and the individuals involved in the project?

To improve the outcomes for the customers, the business, and the individuals involved in the project, I recommend investing to improve the capabilities of the individual contributors. This includes enhancing the skills of individuals in their current specialties and providing training to expand their capabilities. This includes improving the potential for selecting more appropriate talent. This includes enhancing the capabilities for individuals to contribute value to the network.

Actionable Items

Evaluate the eight challenges. Contemplate others. Invest to improve the capabilities of individuals that contribute to your remote networks.

Developing the Conditions for Better Compulsion Loops in New Product Development

How do you get individuals involved in new product development to do more of the effective activity? There are many approaches. In this episode, I will explore several concepts from game development. I will describe how to develop the conditions for a core compulsion loop to drive positive Development Experiences (DX) in new product development.

Game Thinking and Game Mechanics

Often, playing a game is associated with the concept of fun. During game development, individuals are involved in tasks such as designing, coding, and composing, their deliverables. In addition, they strive to make playing the game fun.

According to John Earner of Space Ape Games, a great game has the following characteristics:

  • You are not forced to play the game. If you are forced to play, you are likely to resist.
  • In itself, playing the game may seem unproductive but it allows learning. A game probably has a purpose.
  • The outcome is uncertain.
  • You understand the rules
  • The game may be set in artful, virtual worlds. These worlds can capture an experience in a fictitious environment.
  • Games have easily understandable goals such as ‘save the Princess.’ Throughout a game, you may avoid obstacles, win tokens, and advance to the next level so that you are closer to saving the Princess.

It is not a surprise that some of these game characteristics have been applied in other contexts. The term for this is gamification. According to Wikipedia:

“Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in a non-game context in order to engage users and solve problems”

According to Stephanie Morgan, (@notSMorgangame mechanics are constructs of rules intended to produce a game. Common game mechanics include:

  • Scores and points accumulated through experimentation, interaction, and learning
  • Achievements such as badges and rewards
  • Avatars that provide a sense of identity”

Unfortunately, the concepts of gamification are frequently misinterpreted. One needs more than a tally of scores or a presentation of leader boards to maximize fun or interest or engagement. It requires more than dazzling graphics and carefully composed music.

Note: Some individuals may try to manipulate the system for a desired outcome. This is also known as “gaming the system” ( . This is different than gamification.

Core Compulsion Loops in Game Development

To understand what makes a game fun, some have explored a concept called the core compulsion loop. Some say that the proper development of a core compulsion loop is the essential ingredient for a successful game.

The word compulsion has definitions that range from:

  1. The state of being forced
  2. A difficult to resist urge to behave in a certain way

In the game context, the ‘difficult to resist urge’ conveys the desired intention for a core compulsion loop. A properly developed compulsion loop feeds the mechanics of the game.

A simple, primary compulsion loop is kill monsters, obtain rewards, buy items to kill more monsters.

A simple compulsion loop from a game

A simple compulsion loop from a game

Secondary compulsion loops can be layered and fed into one primary compulsion loop. A secondary compulsion loop may have an element that may be characterized as instant gratification. The primary compulsion loop has a long-term impact. The primary compulsion loop may be characterized in terms of accomplishment.

A properly functioning primary compulsion loop is a virtuous circle that keeps players engaged.

Note: In this post, I am presenting compulsion loops from a positive perspective. Compulsion loops can designed to amplify destructive, additive behavior. I am not addressing those aspects in this post.

Common Gamification Approaches in New Product Development

Common approaches to new product development activities include:

  • Document explicit processes
  • Compliance enforcement. Establish milestones and demand accountability to deadlines.
  • Financial incentives related to salaries and bonuses of individual contributors

There are more subtle forms of gamification. One example is part of the Scrum framework. It embraces the concept of assigning story points for tasks and tracking progress with a burn down chart. This is a reasonable method to track project progress but it does not make for a great game.

Planning Poker cards

Planning Poker Cards used in Scrum to represent story points. The numbers approximate a Fibonacci Sequence.

These methods are not likely to form high performance compulsion loops.

Generalized Version of a Compulsion Loop for New Product Development Environments

A properly designed compulsion loop can become a vital driver to sustain a vibrant new product development environment. A general version of a compulsion loop can be illustrated using goals that are consistent with the concepts of “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” as advanced by Dan Pink (@DanPink) in his book  Drive.

Drive by Daniel Pink

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink emphasizes the roles of autonomy, mastery, and purpose

Autonomy is defined as the ability of a person to make their own decisions. It is self-direction. In a new product development environment, one strives to make better decisions. In this context, autonomy includes individual and group decisions. It includes decisions that the have an impact in the present and those that impact the future.

Mastery includes becoming more proficient with tools and techniques related to individual specialties (such as coding, testing, and marketing). It includes explicit and implicit coordination, collaboration, and harmony within a group.

Purpose includes the ‘why’ questions. In a new product development context, purpose relates to individuals and the product.

  • Personal purpose includes questions such as “Why am I doing this?” and “Why should I care about this?” It includes short-term and long-term perspectives. Purpose includes questions such as “How do my efforts impact others?”
  • Product purpose may include a product vision statement or value proposition. It may not completely express the purpose of the product.

In part, purpose may be transmitted from management. In part, individual contributors inform management. Purpose develops from interactions. Purpose emerges.

Developing the Conditions for Better Compulsion Loops in your New Product Development Environment

The concepts of autonomy, mastery, and purpose may provide a general starting point to develop the conditions required for a compulsion loop.

A compulsion loop for an individual in a new product development environment

A compulsion loop for an individual in a new product development environment

A high performance compulsion loop can not be developed instantaneously. It requires more than the aspiration of the leadership or a single individual in the development network. It requires more than creating a motivational graphic to represent a compulsion loop and posting it throughout the workplace.

A high performance a compulsion loop requires the appropriate supporting environment. It requires investments by individuals to understand the theory. It requires sufficient time to develop proficiency through practice.

To explore how this development may occur, consider a few items related to the concept of autonomy.

  • Someone does not become fully autonomous just because a new initiative begins.
  • The expression of autonomy is role dependent. Leaders may encourage autonomous behavior in their direct reports but the range of appropriate behaviors will be role dependent. For example, a senior project leader will behave in ways that are different than that of a neophyte. Likewise, a coder will make different decisions than a tester.
  • An individual contributor may embrace their autonomy but not have sufficient knowledge to make informed decisions throughout development. Ongoing training is required to maximize the potential for desirable results.
  • An individual’s expression of autonomy evolves and adapts.

In terms of autonomy, the development environment should promote decisions that result in characteristics such as enthusiastic, effective, and efficient decisions for engagement.

In terms of mastery, the development environment should promote activities that result in comprehensive knowledge and accomplishment. An individual should advance their skills in their specialty (such as coding in a particular language) and expand their skills (such as coding in a new language).

An individual should increase their understanding of how they create value through their interactions with others in the development network. An example of purpose is captured by in the following excerpt:

“For a cross-discipline team that is measured by value added to a working game, the role of an artist shifts to that of a ‘game developer’ who specializes in art. An artist doesn’t simply create an asset for someone else to put in the game and make fun.  The artist participates in the creation of an experience, where art has an equal value. By having a voice in the discussion about what is being created, the artist elevates the value of what they create and minimizes the cost of creating it.” –  from the book “Agile Game Development with Scrum” by Clinton Keith (@ClintonKeith) page 227. Published in 2010.

Agile Game Development by Clinton Keith

Agile Game Development by Clinton Keith

Better Compulsion Loops in New Product Development Environments

To get individuals to do more of the effective activity, develop conditions to ensure that the activity produces fun. I am using the word ‘fun’ to cover a broad category that can also include items such as fulfilling, satisfying, and intellectually challenging.

For knowledge workers, I contend that a compulsion loop based on fun will produce better outcomes than one that is based on compliance.

I acknowledge that deadlines and performance reviews that relate to salaries may motivate individuals during certain times in a project but that is an inferior compulsion loop.

It is better to evolve notions of compliance to reflect the project constraints. In a project, constraints evolve as information emerges.

Prototyping a Better Compulsion Loop in your New Product Development Environment

When a new product is being developed, prototype the compulsion loop before you invoke a lot of technology. Individual contributors want fun and technology.
In a new product development context, prototype the conditions that you believe will produce a great Development Experience (DX). When you have done that, you will have the insights required to develop a high performance primary compulsion loop.

Developing the Conditions for Better Compulsion Loops